Here"s your chance to meet the man who inspired Aamir"s role in "3 Idiots"

The SECMOL campus, founded by innovator-engineer Sonam Wangchuk, in Phey, Ladakh
The SECMOL campus, founded by innovator-engineer Sonam Wangchuk, in Phey, Ladakh

In the mid-1980s, when Sonam Wangchuk was studying engineering in Srinagar, he would tutor students to cover his expenses. Teaching young, bright minds was a delight. But every time the results were announced, they left Wangchuk baffled — 95 per cent of Ladakhi students would fail the state matriculation exams every year.

“The responsibility for such a high failure rate couldn’t be that of students. It lay with the education system as they were not taught in their mother tongue,” shares 50-year-old Wangchuk, over a phone call from Leh. He went on to found The Students’ Educational and Cultural Movement of Ladakh (SECMOL) in 1988 to bring about reforms in the region’s education. With almost three decades of efforts, two-thirds of students in the Leh district pass the matriculation exam now.

Sonam Wangchuk (right) with his students. Pic courtesy/©Rolex/Stefan Walter
Sonam Wangchuk (right) with his students. Pic courtesy/©Rolex/Stefan Walter

Wangchuk’s focus, though, hasn’t been only education. He has also developed solutions to problems of communities living at high altitudes, such as climate-responsive housing and water shortage. Next week, Wangchuk will share his insights at the panel discussion, Greening India: One Classroom At A Time, organised by Asia Society India Centre. He will be joined by Kartikeya Vikram Sarabhai (founder-director of the Centre for Environment Education) and Ranjit Barthakur (founder trustee of Balipara Foundation focused on the Eastern Himalayas).

No ordinary school
In 1994, Wangchuk led the establishment of a solar-powered, student-built, student-run alternative school, where teenagers who still fail in the conventional education system get a second chance. It believes in the three Hs — bright head, skilled hand and kind heart.

An ice stupa. Pic courtesy/Sonam Wangchuk
An ice stupa. Pic courtesy/Sonam Wangchuk

Located in Phey, the SECMOL campus runs on passive solar heating, where buildings are kept warm without any carbon dioxide emission or electric heaters even in harsh winter. A typical day at SECMOL begins at 5 am. “The students wake up early to make use of the sunlight. They do some exercises and gather for a small meditation session. We have a morning talk, where I speak to them about our surroundings and the world, and how they should spend their precious time,” Wangchuk tells us.

Then, the students spend some time in the school’s garden, with cows on the campus or at the solar power plant for hands-on experience. After their academic lessons, they interact with volunteers from around the world, whom Wangchuk calls walking atlases. Sounds familiar? Wangchuk’s work and the school inspired the character of Phunsukh Wangdu in the film 3 Idiots. But this isn’t something Wangchuk likes to talk about. “There’s a lot of work at hand,” says the humble man.

Greening the desert
Working in the cold desert, Wangchuk witnessed the severe water shortage it faces from up close. In 2014, he began working on a project called Ice Stupa that would store massive quantities of water from the winter stream, which would otherwise go waste. These stupas would then melt and feed the farms during the planting months of April and May, before the natural glacial waters start flowing. This innovation caught international attention. In 2016, Wangchuk was conferred with the Rolex Award for Enterprise.

Wangchuk also plans to create an ice hotel with rooms and beds made of ice, as a tourist attraction, so the money can then be diverted to further betterment of farmers. To provide a platform for more innovations and make his experience accessible to a larger number of students, plans are underway for establishing The Himalayan Institute of Alternatives, Ladakh.

On April 18, 6.30 pm
At The Taj Mahal Palace, Colaba. email [email protected] (to RSVP)


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